Showdown over Wright building averted

Dean Eastman reportedly buying Coonley Coach House

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By BOB SKOLNIK

A white knight has apparently come to the rescue of the Coonley Coach house.

"Dean Eastman has offered to purchase the property and to offer Carolyn Howlett a life estate," said Kathryn Balgley, the attorney from the Cook County Office of the Public Guardian which represents the estate of Carolyn Howlett.

A life estate is a property right that means Carolyn Howlett, who has lived in the National Historic Landmark building for the past 54 years, will have a legally enforceable right to remain in the home during her lifetime.

Howlett's ownership interest in the coach house will cease upon her death, at which time the home, designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1908 as part of the Avery Coonley estate, will become the property of Eastman.

The transaction must still be approved by the probate judge who oversees Carolyn Howlett's affairs. The parties will appear before Judge Mary Ellen Coghlan on Friday, Sept. 16. If Judge Coghlan approves the transaction, as expected, the closing could occur as soon as next week according to Balgley, who added that although final details of the contract are still being worked out, she expects the transaction to occur.

"It's a very generous offer," said Balgley, who refused to divulge the purchase price. "I think it is the best possible solution in these circumstances. It's frankly a miracle that it happened."

Under the arrangement Eastman, who currently owns, lives in and painstakingly restored what once was the main section of the residence of the Coonley Estate will maintain the coach house.

"Professor Eastman will assume all the financial responsibility for maintaining and repairing the property," Balgley said. "We can trust him as a neighbor and a member of the community to do a great job on this house."

Eastman is currently a physics professor at the University of Chicago. Prior to that he headed the Argonne National Laboratory and worked for 33 years as a scientist for the IBM corporation.

Repeated efforts to reach Eastman for comment were unsuccessful.

The coach house, located at 336 Coonley Road in Riverside, originally served as the stables and then the garage of the estate. Howlett, who is a 91-year-old widow suffering from Alzheimer's disease, has lived in the coach house since 1951, when she and her late husband, Jim, purchased the coach house and help save the entire estate from demolition.

In recent years the coach house's clay tile roof has fallen into disrepair, and the roof leaked. Howlett has been a ward of the public guardian's office since 2004, when a judge ruled that she was not competent to manage her own financial affairs. She currently requires 24-hour custodial care. The money she will receive from Eastman will help pay for that care, said Balgley.

"This deal alleviates an enormous burden off this estate," said Balgley.

In July, the public guardian's office appeared before the Riverside Preservation Commission requesting a certificate of appropriateness to allow it to replace the leaking roof with an asphalt shingle replacement roof, contending that Howlett could not afford to replace the roof with historically accurate and expensive clay tiles.

The request set off alarms from preservationists, who sought to find a way to preserve the roof and the architectural integrity of this national and Riverside landmark and, at the same time, allow Howlett to remain in her home.

For the past two months preservation groups and lawyers from the public guardian's office have been trying to come up with a solution that satisfies their respective concerns.

Now it appears that they have been successful.

Eastman has been active in the Chicago-based Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, which helped bring about this solution. Eastman is a member of the Conservancy and won its 2004 Wright Spirit Award in recognition of his restoration work on the main residence of the Coonley Estate.

He was also a speaker at a Wright building conservancy conference in 2004, according to Audra Dye the program director at the Wright Building Conservancy who described Eastman as "a good friend of the Conservancy" while refraining from further public comment.

Perhaps no one is happier that this solution has been found than Balgley.

"I didn't want to be known as the lawyer who ripped the roof off the Coonley Coach House," she said.

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